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Blow Hard

New Mexico has plenty of wind to sell, but how will it get there from here?

March 17, 2010, 12:00 am

As far as load goes, New Mexico’s small population doesn’t use that much electricity. Even use in Albuquerque and Santa Fe pales in comparison with out-of-state markets. When New Mexicans talk about cultivating new sources of electricity, they’re thinking about the maw to the west: Almost half of the electricity used in the entire western United States goes to California.

“The big wind resources run through the middle of the country—it’s a huge resource—but not a lot of people live there, probably because it’s too damn windy,” Ron Lehr, Western representative for the American Wind Energy Association, says. “So then you have to ask yourself: How do you get it to where the population is?”

There are a number of regional transmission projects in the planning stages. The proposed Tres Amigas superconductor project near Clovis would connect three power grids: the Eastern, Western and Texas grids. Likewise, the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project would create a new regional electric transmission line between southern New Mexico and southern Arizona, and the High Plains Express Transmission Project would tie grids together in Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Regional grids allow variability to spread across a larger area, Lehr says. And a new study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows that such an integration would benefit consumers:

“The lesson was that if you mix solar and wind across the territory, it becomes a more stable resource,” he says. “But that requires changes in how you operate.”

The real challenge is changing how markets operate in the West. Each utility supplies its own customers from its own resources, he says. Trading is not the focus.

He cites the example of moving electricity generated from a New Mexico wind farm to a market in Los Angeles, comparing it to moving wheat during feudal times: The seller stops at every castle, pays a toll, faces off against robber barons.
In the case of electricity today, providers must pay a transmission fee to every utility they cross on the way to market.

“By the time it reaches California, there’s nothing left of it—the value has been taken out,” he says. “But you don’t have to have the market structured like that.”

Enron’s abuses of the market in California scared people off further discussions of trading on electrical markets, but there are plenty of examples of investor-owned utilities nationwide that operate their grids centrally, taking bids on power production.

Utilities are not particularly adaptable. Nor are they good at dealing with change—which is usually a good thing, Lehr says. Customers want utilities to be reliable and stable. But change is inevitable, he says. The fossil fuel resources that built the modern infrastructure—and cemented markets and mind-sets—aren’t going to last forever.

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